Here’s the problem with explaining disability jokes

Listen to this post: 

I’m funny. You’re funny. We all have the best sense of humor, and we love to make other people laugh. [clown horn honk honk.] Even if this were always true, it doesn’t make us above reproach. What I mean: you can still tell an awful and offensive joke even if you don’t realize it was offensive. Most everyone I know has done all this, including me. And it doesn’t have to be a disaster…unless you attack someone for saying your joke sucked. Let me sketch it out.

You tell a joke that offends me. It’s hurtful and oppressive because it makes fun of a marginalized person or group.

I tell you that joke is unfair and hurts.

So you tell me to a) get a sense of humor, b) move along if you don’t like jokes, and/or c) explain the joke to me, on the off chance that I’m completely wrong about how I feel, and you’re a perfect joke-teller and every joke you tell, by default, is fair and hilarious.

It happened not too long ago. An online news aggregation site I can’t stand posted a “joke” in a blog post about “Autism Meltdown Bingo.” Disability and Autistic activists roared their justifiable rage and started a social media campaign called #CrippingtheMighty. Some people defended the game and post. They said the activists were blowing things out of proportion and censoring parents of disabled or Autistic kids. Why this backlash? Cuz you know, someone thought the game in the post was funny. So by some logic from a universe I haven’t been to yet, if you don’t like the game, you’re a) not witty enough to join the party, b) a party-pooper, and/or c) clearly uninformed.

Note to all humans: sometimes your joke hurts someone. If they tell you they’re hurt, it’s because they are. Work on your jokes, but first, work on yourself. And do not, not, not ask the hurt person to get a thicker skin or learn to get jokes better, especially if the hurt person is from a marginalized group or a group who has less political and social power than you, the joke-teller, have. Especially then. And especially if you are white and tell a joke, and a person of color hates your joke. Take a break from your jokes.

When non-disabled people and parents of disabled people crack jokes where disability is the butt of the joke, we have a power issue. When an activist calls you out (or privately calls you in) that your joke is hurtful, it’s time to shut your trap, fold your typing fingers, or do whatever you have to do to cool down. Even if your joke exquisitely matches some cultural definition of funny, hilarious, gut-busting, or genius, if you refuse to acknowledge someone could be hurt by your imagery, your attitude and obliviousness to your own privilege need some tweaking. Might also be good to consider your world view needs expanding, as different people interpret the world differently based on culture, previous experience with oppression, and more.

Please, stop telling protesters that they’re wrong for protesting your jokes. And don’t explain the joke in some last ditch effort to get people to think you’re great and they’re wrong. Often, the protesters already said exactly what they don’t like about the joke. That means they get the joke. That means they get it, and they want you to know there’s another interpretation that’s hurtful and oppressive (or point out the original intention is oppressive). But then the jokers go on to waste bytes, keystrokes, and time joke-splaining, able-splaining, white-splaining, man-splaining, and any other -splaining that fits the moment. An alternative would be to apologize, thank the person for educating you, and even take down the joke. That’s not the same as censorship. And your pain at getting called out is not as great as the pain of disabled people who wake up every single day to find they are, again, the butt of a joke and a source of agony to non-disabled people who, somehow, deserve to escape said agony through belittling them.

Beth Haller wrote a really great paper on the topic in “Disability Studies Quarterly” back when non-disabled writers at Saturday Night Live thought they were clever with their bumbling blind-guy jokes about Governor Patterson. She said: “Without disabled people involved in the creation of humor, these jokes can be read as insulting and patronizing.” And she said a lot of other very important things about the problems when non-disabled people create disability jokes for a non-disabled audience, such as, “[i]n the majority non-disabled society, ableist comedy is barely understood to be offensive because of ignorance about the day-to-day experiences of people with disabilities.”

Feeling ignorant about the day-to-day experiences of people with disabilities? That’s a sign you’re not the one to write or post a joke about us. Feeling like someone else is ignorant because they felt oppressed by your joke? That’s a sign you’re really, really not the one to write or post a joke about us.